Liver head pic

Liver

Your liver is super-important hence the name “vital organ”. Trust me, when the smart people say it’s important they are for real. Unlike many of your other vital organs it is impossible to live without a liver. It has loads of different jobs all equally important. It stores energy for your body (in the form of glycogen) and also stores vitamins. It digests and processes proteins and fats. Probably it’s most famously known for breaking down the bad stuff you put in your body, such as alcohol.
We can be a little unkind to our livers sometimes, especially when it comes to drinking the booze. Liver disease as a result of alcohol is a growing cause of concern in the UK and recently there has been a rise in the number of cases in 25-29 year olds. The important thing to realize is that these people didn’t just have a drink at the age of 25 and get ill. The liver is a pretty strong and resilient beast. The problem arose because they started drinking consistently and heavily in their teens.

Other possible causes of liver disease are Hepatitis and Fatty Liver Disease (non-alcohol related). These three top causes of liver damage are all pretty preventable through healthy living or vaccinations. So let’s learn about liver and how to treat it nicely.

+   What your liver does?

Your liver is like that annoying kid at school that gets great test results and plays on the first XI football team and is grade eight at piano. It's a multi-tasker that's talented and clever into the bargain:

  • It stores energy for your body in the form of glycogen which it takes from the food you eat then stores   until you need a little extra kick – at which point it turns it into glucose and sends it off into your blood stream
  • It stores a bunch of vitamins that are necessary for your body to run smoothly such as vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, Vitamin K, iron and copper
  • It produces stuff that helps your blood to clot (to prevent too much bleeding when you get hurt)
  • It makes bile which helps to digest the fats you eat
  • It both helps to digest and create proteins
  • It helps to breakdown red blood cells
  • It breaks down bad stuff you put into your body into chemicals it can process then excretes them in your pee or bile
    • alcohol is the major one, but it also breaks down drugs and normal medication like paracetemol
  • It produces some important hormones, one of which helps to control your blood pressure
  • What else could you want it to do? Oh right it’s also awesomely good at fixing itself. The liver has the ability to regenerate its function once it’s been damaged and 25% of a liver can regain the equal amount of function as if it was whole.

All in all you gotta be pretty mean to your liver for it to give up on you. That said giving it a rest every now and again gives it the chance to catch up with your fast lifestyle.

+   Common Liver Problems

Your liver is a hub of activity and unfortunately prone to a number of diseases and disorders. As such a vital organ, problems with your liver can lead to serious health concerns and even be fatal. We are going to go over a few of the most common and serious liver diseases, all of which if left untreated can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.

  • Hepatitis (the most common types are A,B and C)
  • Damage caused by alcohol and medication
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease  (NAFLD)
  • Cancer

+   Signs that there is something wrong

Unfortunately many liver problems have to get pretty bad and you have to have some serious damage before you show any signs or symptoms. There a few tell-tell signs that things are starting to go bad:

  • Pale stool (that’s what the doctors call poo)
  • Dark urine (pee)
  • Swelling in your tummy or ankles/feet
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Bruising
  • Jaundice (which may make your skin and eye whites yellow, and can cause intense itching)

+   Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is when healthy tissue in the liver is replaced with hard scar tissue. Eventually, if the problem causing the scarring is not stopped, all the healthy tissue may be replaced with scar tissue and normal functions cannot be supported. This damage cannot be reversed and without treatment the liver will fail. Usually cirrhosis is the outcome of long term liver disease or liver damage. In the early stages there are a few symptoms but as it progresses you may see

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite and weight
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Spider like blood vessels
  • Severe itching (caused by jaundice)
  • Yellowing of the skin and eye whites (caused by jaundice)
  • Problems can also lead to
    • Gall stones
    • Easy bruising – as your liver is no longer producing as much as the stuff that helps your blood to clot
    • Fluid buildup in the belly and ankles/feet
    • Mental confusion and brain damage – if your liver is not filtering out toxins as well as usual they can get to your brain and cause damage

+   Alcohol and Drug related Liver Disease

As we have already discussed part of your liver's job is to filter out the bad stuff you put in your body. This includes breaking down alcohol and medication into something your body can process and tolerate that won't cause you any damage. If you drink too much, or overdose on medication, your liver gets a little overwhelmed and ends up getting damaged. Paracetemol is a common cause of liver damage medication and you should always follow dosing instructions provided. Long term drug or alcohol abuse can cause irreparable damage to your liver ending in fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis, all which can eventually cause liver failure. Abuse of your liver can make you more vulnerable to other liver diseases and complications. The current trends in the UK of liver related deaths are worrying with a 69% increase of liver related deaths over the past 30 years. In the last 7 years alone the number of women aged 25-29 with liver disease due to alcohol abuse have increased 88%. In men of the same age the figure is 60%. There are three stages of liver damage in alcoholics:

Fatty liver disease

almost all heavy drinkers have fatty liver disease, but it often shows no symptoms. The good news is that if you stop drinking it will often go away if not too much damage has already been done

  • Your liver cells start to gain extra amount of fat causing them to swell
  • If you do have symptoms they most likely include fatigue, weakness and weight loss, and later the more serious symptoms of cirrhosis
  • It can lead to liver failure if untreated for long enough

Alcoholic Hepatitis – 35% of heavy drinkers will develop this

  • It causes the liver cells to swell
  • As with many other liver diseases you often don’t get symptoms until it’s really bad
  • Symptoms include appetite and weight loss, nausea, vomiting, belly pain, fever and jaundice (noticeable by a yellowing of the skin and eye whites and severely itchy skin)
  • Alcohol abusers can get mild or severe hepatitis. Mild hepatitis is reversible, however severe hepatitis may occur very suddenly and may be fatal (i.e you could die)

Alcoholic cirrhosis – 10-20% of heavy drinkers will develop this

  • Symptoms of cirrhosis (see above) caused by scarring of liver tissue
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis is irreversible and will likely require a liver transplant to fix
    • In order to be eligible for a transplant a sufferer has to prove sobriety
  • A complete end to drinking will help to prevent further damage and medication and treatment can help to manage the symptoms and complications such as kidney failure, enlarged spleen, bleeding from the stomach or a buildup of fluid in the belly
  • You are more likely to develop alcoholic cirrhosis if you have another liver problem such as Hepatitis

+   Recommended Units and liver Recovery

Most people like to drink now and again and your liver is well equipped to deal with processing alcohol providing you don't consistently give it more than it can handle. Know the recommended units and give it time to recover after a pretty heavy night out. Just like you wouldn't want to run a marathon the day after an epic 21st birthday party, your liver doesn't want to be asked to digest another whole bottle of wine after such an occasion. The UK liver organization suggests you give your liver 2 days off in a row per week. It not only gives your liver a break but also helps to break the habit of drinking every day. The recommended units for women per day are 2-3 which is about the equivalent of two small glasses of wine or one double gin and tonic. For men the recommendation is 3-4 units which is equal to one and a half pints of regular lager or a pint of cider. It will vary with people's weight a little but that's the averages. If you are unsure about units they now include them on the labels of alcohol in the UK.

+   Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)

This is when you get a buildup of extra fat in the liver cells usually caused by diet or alcohol (see the alcoholism section for more details on alcohol liver damage). It's normal for the liver to have a little fat in it but when 5 – 10% of the livers weight is fat you have a condition called fatty liver disease. This happens when you get a buildup of triglycerides (a type of fat cell) in your liver due to increased fat in your diet and it causes the liver to swell

  • Foods high in fat and sugar contain a high amount of triglycerides
  • It’s your liver’s job to process these triglycerides and store them and then it releases them when the body needs them
  • When the release is slowed down or the flow of the triglycerides is increased then they build up in the liver
  • This causes the liver to swell which can lead to scarring and cirrhosis which is when the healthy tissue of the liver is replaced by hard scar tissue
  • Eventually this can lead to liver failure and liver cancer and can be fatal
  • You are at risk of fatty liver disease if you are obese, have diabetes, have high cholesterol or have poor eating habits
  • There are very few early warning signs of fatty liver, though obesity can be one of them
  • A blood test may show unusual liver enzymes and your doctor can confirm with an ultra sound, a CT scan or MRI. If they are particularly concerned they may take a little piece of your liver to test it
  • There is no medical treatment yet but healthy diet and exercise and a reduction in weight have been shown to help prevent further damage and reverse early stages of fatty liver disease, this is best done alongside controlling diabetes, avoiding alcohol and lowering your cholesterol level

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